Notre Dame football tries to find ways to maximize quarterback Jack Coan's effectiveness
SOUTH BEND — Brian Kelly left the secrecy of Notre Dame’s quarterback situation in the past.
Unlike in the days leading up to Notre Dame’s 32-29 victory at Virginia Tech, the Irish head coach put his public support Monday behind graduate senior Jack Coan with the acknowledgement that freshman Tyler Buchner will also be needed.
The combination, however twisted, planned or accidental, worked against the Hokies (3-3). It will be tested once again Saturday in Notre Dame Stadium (7:30 p.m. EDT on NBC) by an unpredictable USC team (3-3).
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“Jack Coan continues to be the guy who gives us the best chance to win,” Kelly said Monday. “And a mixture of him with Tyler Buchner. Both of them. Drew (Pyne) has done some really good things for us, and if we feel like we’re in a situation where we need to call on him, we would.”
The feeling that No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) is choosing to play quarterback roulette might not subside anytime soon, but that’s a product of the up-and-down play the Irish have seen at the position. If Coan, who has started all six games, can consistently play as well as he did in the final two drives against Virginia Tech, the Irish might not need to call on Buchner as often.
Before Coan was replaced by Buchner in the second quarter, Coan was just 2-of-3 passing for 15 yards and was sacked twice on three drives against Virginia Tech. When he returned for two drives in the final four minutes of the game, Coan completed seven of his nine pass attempts for 93 yards and one touchdown. He wasn’t sacked on either drive and also converted a two-point conversion on a pass to wide receiver Kevin Austin Jr.
But operating a fast-tempo offense against a tired defense may be hard to replicate throughout an entire game.
“Let’s look at it from this perspective: When has he looked really good?” Kelly said. “Late in the game, right? Those defensive linemen are chasing Tyler Buchner around, right? They're tiring out a little bit. So that pass rush is not quite the same in the first series or the second series as it is in the last series. So there’s a little bit of that.
“Jack speeds up in those late drives, where the ball comes out a little bit quicker. There's more of a sense of urgency. It’s a little bit of both. The pass rush tends to lay down a little bit later in the game as those guys are running sideline to sideline having to chase all game. And then Jack’s sense of urgency in terms of getting the ball out is a lot more deliberate.
“We gleaned a lot from that in our bye week in terms of what we needed to work on maybe earlier in the game for Jack in being more efficient.”
The Trojans have struggled against passing attacks this season. Opposing quarterbacks have registered a passing efficiency rating of 149.97, which put USC’s defense at No. 110 in the FBS entering this week.
Tyler Buchner contributes, too
Buchner, who gives the Irish a clear boost in the running game when he plays, needs to be able to take advantage of opportunities in the passing game, too. Though he needed to be helped off the field after rolling his right ankle on his last snap against Virginia Tech, Buchner should be 100% this week, Kelly said.
The Irish freshman learned valuable lessons in his most expanded role yet at Virginia Tech. His struggles, particularly his two interceptions, can be explained through his inexperience.
In his first four games of action, Buchner completed just nine of his 20 pass attempts (45%) for 191 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. Buchner’s first interception against Virginia Tech, which was returned by cornerback Jermaine Waller for a 26-yard touchdown, provided a teaching moment.
“He was going off a recommendation based upon what had happened earlier instead of going through a progression,” Kelly said. “The conversation was much more about go through your progression, don’t just assume something’s happening because it happened the time before. He didn’t get much help relative to the way the route was being run. It was a great learning experience.
“Unfortunately, it put us in a bad spot. But he’s so smart and he understood it right away. I don’t think it’s something that he’ll ever have to come back to in not just that particular route but in a number of different things that we laid down for him.”
Sophomore tight end Michael Mayer, Notre Dame’s leader in receptions (32) and receiving yards (360), should be back in the lineup against USC. Kelly said Mayer, who was dealing with a hip adductor strain and missed the Virginia Tech, looks close to 100% healthy.
Sophomore running back Chris Tyree, who missed most of the second half at Virginia Tech with a turf toe injury, has also been cleared to return. Kelly said Tyree practiced last week.
Sophomore tight end Kevin Bauman, who exited the season opener at Florida State with a broken leg, could be within two weeks of returning to the field, Kelly said. The Irish lost freshman tight end Cane Berrong for the remainder of the season last week due to a knee injury, so Bauman’s return will be important.
On Saturday, the Irish will have to play the first half without fellow freshman tight end Mitchell Evans as he serves the rest of his targeting penalty expulsion from the second half of the Virginia Tech game. As a result, the Irish listed sophomore offensive tackle Michael Carmody as a third tight end option on this week’s depth chart. Carmody, who started two games at left tackle, has essentially switched roles with freshman left tackle Joe Alt.
“He’s a big guy who can add some size into the 13 package (one running back and three tight ends) for us,” Kelly said of Carmody. “Now when Bauman comes back, we’ll see where we are. But for the immediate purpose of needing that next tight end, he definitely serves a great role for us.”
Notre Dame’s defense escaped the Virginia Tech game relatively healthy with junior defensive tackle Jacob Lacey, who is dealing with an ankle sprain, as the only defensive player mentioned by Kelly as having an uncertain status for this weekend.
• The last time USC visited Notre Dame, the Trojans deployed an explosive passing attack with wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. as its most effective weapon. Notre Dame succeeded in limiting Pittman to four catches for 29 yards in the 2019 Irish victory.
Shutting down USC wide receiver Drake London might be an even tougher task this Saturday. In his first six games, London totaled 64 catches for 832 yards and five touchdowns this season. That’s twice as many catches as Mayer has tallied for the Irish.
“You have to have a plan for him, just as we had one for Pittman and the other players that they had,” Kelly said. “If you just line up and just say, ‘OK, we’ll live with what the consequences are,’ it’ll be like (defensive end) George Karlaftis at Purdue.
“Like we couldn’t just line up and say, ‘George just rush the passer.’ We had to have a plan for him. So we’ll have to have a plan for (London) as well.”
• Part of Notre Dame’s defensive success this season has been its ability to limit opposing offenses on third down. The Irish entered the week ranked No. 19 in the FBS with a defensive third-down conversion rate of 31.9%.
That success didn’t hold as well against Virginia Tech, who finished 8-of-17 (47.1%) on third downs, but, Kelly said, the Irish have identified the issues.
“Some of the problems that we had we addressed this week in terms of the ball getting outside our defensive structure,” Kelly said. “There’s still work to be done there. That’s been about situational awareness. We had a scramble against Virginia Tech where we’re plastering on receivers when the quarterback’s crossing the line of scrimmage. We have to be so much better than that.”
• Fall break for Notre Dame students started Saturday, so the Irish football team won’t be dealing with classes all week as it prepares for USC.
HOW TO WATCH NOTRE DAME VS. USC
Who: No. 13 Notre Dame (5-1) vs. USC (3-3)
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. Saturday EDT
Where: Notre Dame Stadium
Radio: WSBT (AM 960), WNSN-FM (101.5)
Line: Notre Dame by 6 1/2
Follow ND Insider Tyler James on Twitter: @TJamesNDI.